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Leading Lean from the Middle of the Organization

By Steve Kane Updated on November 21st, 2019

This article was originally posted a couple of years ago.  Questions about getting other people to change their thinking come up fairly regularly, so I thought I’d revisit the topic here.

A common struggle in the lean community is the perception that if senior leadership doesn’t drive lean, then the rest of the organization can’t be lean.  As Masaaki Imai put it, the three most important requirements in embracing kaizen and lean are 1) top management commitment, 2) top management commitment, and 3) top management commitment.  All is not lost if these three most important requirements are lacking.


Before I suggest two potential countermeasures, remember that lean is a life-long journey.  Expect it to take time.

Create the Demand for Continuous Improvement

Ron shared with me his story of creating demand for kaizen from his boss at another organization earlier in his career.  Ron knew his boss reported up to higher level executives monthly on the happenings in his area of responsibility.  He provided an unsolicited slide deck highlighting improvements made during the month.  After a few months, the boss started expecting kaizen and kaizen reports.

Another idea from Ron is to ask the boss what struggles she’s dealing with, then go and see with your own eyes and PDCA.  Getting the results that matter to senior leadership will certainly matter.  Stick to your lean principles to get the job done.

Admittedly, creating the demand for continuous improvement results isn’t the same as transforming the boss into a lean thinker.  So, what the next course of action?

“Be the Leader You Want.”  ~ Simon Sinek

As mentioned earlier, a lean journey is long.  And, this next suggestion might take quite a bit of time for some readers.  The suggestion is to become the top manager who commits to lean.  We won’t change the world by trying to change other people.  We change the world by changing ourselves and helping others.  As the folks at AME put it, “Learn.  Share.  Grow.”

Those in the middle of an organization can employ lean thinking and methods within their areas of responsibility.  Patience and persistence will be crucial.  If you’re not interested in climbing the corporate ladder, perhaps you’ll have the opportunity to influence others who are.

  1. Jon Wiederecht

    December 2, 2019 - 3:27 pm


    Definitely is common topic, a common occurence, a common issue – so thanks for writing on this topic. And it was timely because it was a topic that my manager and I were discussing just this morning. I would add this distinction to what you discussed. You might have a deployment that is supported by senior leadership, but the senior leadership doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. So they say the right things, they provide the funding, etc… but they don’t understand that it’s about the behaviors – specifically their behaviors. As you know, Lean is as much or more about behaviors as it is tools/concepts. So when the senior leadership aren’t practicing the behaviors they need to exemplify, then this is a stumbling block – but many/most don’t realize it’s about behaviors. And hence you have a disconnect between what is being said “I support ….” and what they do. And again, I think it often happens because they don’t know what they don’t know.

    • Steve Kane

      December 2, 2019 - 4:38 pm


      Thanks for the comment. You make a good point and I agree. There’s no substitute for setting the example.


  2. Szymon Wierny

    December 5, 2019 - 9:28 am

    I think the concept of time in lean journey is an important one. What many people don’t realise is that improvements (day to day, week to week, month to month) require time and comittment and a culture in which learning, reflecting is embraced. Hitting low handging fruits is sometimes the norm while looking at things long term is the difficult bit. Creating with people the environment to stop and reflect to problem solve is key. Asking coaching questions like why do you think this is now not running well? What do you think has changed? What are our options? This is the type of day to day practise to work alongside workers and show respect and channel improvements upward.

    • Steve Kane

      December 5, 2019 - 9:39 am


      Thanks very much. Leading is an activity–a set of behaviors that must be practiced frequently and consistently. I appreciate you pointing this out.


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